Park expansion likely as North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell turns 100

Hiker Wayne Johnson of Charlotte views Balsam Cone and Cattail Peak from atop Big Tom peak in Mount Mitchell State Park in October.
Hiker Wayne Johnson of Charlotte views Balsam Cone and Cattail Peak from atop Big Tom peak in Mount Mitchell State Park in October. Correspondent

Mount Mitchell State Park celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, with a land expansion underway that stands to more than double the size of the park.

The oldest of 41 parks operated by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, Mount Mitchell was the first park established in the Southeast by either state or federal government.

With super-sized mountains and splendid views, the park’s centerpiece is 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the East. The park also takes in such lofty peaks as Mount Craig (6,647 feet), Balsam Cone (6,621 feet), Big Tom (6,581 feet) and Mount Gibbes (6,571 feet), all part of the Black Mountains.

A nonprofit conservation group has purchased 2,744 acres along Mount Mitchell’s northern boundary and this year plans to start conveying the land to expand the park, now 1,996 acres.

The park’s expansion would include 6,200-foot-high Cattail Peak and land extending west to the Cane River in Yancey County.

The acreage consists of three tracts purchased by the Conservation Fund. The group acquired the tracts for $13 million by bargain sales, private donations and state money, N.C. director Bill Holman.

In the past two years, the N.C. Clean Water Management Fund has provided $1.33 million in grants for the land; the conservation group has applied for another $2 million in 2016. Additional state money could be needed to complete the transaction.

State parks spokesman Charlie Peek confirmed this month that park officials have determined the tracts are “suitable acquisitions” for Mount Mitchell State Park as the venerable park enters its second century.

Loftiest peak in the East

The mountain’s prominence goes back 181 years. In the early 19th century, the tallest peak in the East was thought to be 6,288-foot Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Elisha Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina, set out to prove the Black Mountains were higher.

Here’s an account of his exploration based on a “A History of Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains,” by S. Kent Schwarzkopf, and “Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains,” by Timothy Silver:

In 1835, Mitchell and two guides hiked through thick rhododendron to a high summit in the Blacks. In a dense fog, he got an elevation reading of 6,476 feet (which he later corrected to 6,690 feet).

Mitchell had determined that the East’s loftiest peak belonged to North Carolina, bringing a sense of pride to the state. In 1844, he returned and determined the elevation of a high peak that he called “the top of Black” to be 6,672 feet.

But Thomas Clingman, a congressman and former student of Mitchell, in 1855 studied Mitchell’s sometimes vague accounts and maintained that Mitchell had not reached the summit.

In 1857, Mitchell, age 64, hiking alone on Mount Mitchell’s western slope, slipped and drowned in the waterfall pool in what is now Mitchell Falls. He was reinterred on the summit of Mount Mitchell in 1858, where he rests today. His guides affirmed that Mitchell did indeed ascend his namesake mountain.

A Yancey County guide and bear hunter, Big Tom Wilson, found Mitchell’s body. Wilson’s great-great grandson, David Boone, 74, of Burnsville, said memories of Big Tom remain vivid. As he grew older, Big Tom couldn’t stalk game. “They would take Big Tom a chair, place him in cleared spot, and run rabbits toward him so he could shoot them,” Boone said.

Wilson’s fame was such that the New York Times ran his obituary in 1908: “Big Tom Wilson Dead at 85. Held World Record for Killing Bears. Found Dr. Mitchell’s Body.”

Protecting the mountains

In the late 1800s, loggers began massive cutting in the Blacks, essentially scalping mountainsides. The forest devastation around Mount Mitchell outraged citizens. In 1915, Gov. Locke Craig, an Asheville lawyer, persuaded the legislature to protect the peak. Mount Craig was later named for him as was Big Tom for Big Tom Wilson.

The legislature authorized Mount Mitchell State Park and appropriated $20,000 ($472,000 in today’s dollars) for land. On March 21, 1916, the state bought the first 525 acres.

Today, the park draws visitors – 315,979 in 2015 – and hard-core athletes. Each February, runners take on the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge from Black Mountain to the summit and back. In May, bicyclists ride 103 miles from Spartanburg to the summit in the Assault on Mount Mitchell.

Last year, Asheville veterinarian Mark Ledyard, then 49, did both.

Most demanding? The challenge. Ledyard said it took him a month to fully recover. Most painful? The assault. “After the assault, everything hurt. My skin hurt.”

For Caren Akin of Charlotte, Mount Mitchell carries memories of her first hiking trip, at age 15.

Forty-one years ago, Akin conquered Mount Mitchell the hard way: She climbed the 5.5 strenuous miles from Black Mountain campground to the sky-scraping summit in 1975.

“We started at the campground. I fell into the Toe River. I had blisters. It was so exhilarating,” she recalls. “It was gorgeous. I was so tired. I was so excited I had done that.”

She returned in October by car, her first visit since that ascent as a teenager.

“Coming up here is so soothing,” Akin said. “It’s like a spiritual cleansing.”

Mount Mitchell stands tall

These are nearest mountains higher than 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell:

To the north: Greenland, Mount Atter at 7,185 feet

To the west: Texas, Lost Mine Peak at 7,536 feet

To the south: Jamaica, Blue Mountain Peak at 7,402 feet

To the east: Azores Islands off Portugal, Mount Pico at 7,713 feet